Friday, November 27, 2009

Haj: Pilgrims -A lucrative business of sweat and blood

All Muslims wish to go to Mecca to perform haj as required in the Koran. And every year Indonesia sends the largest number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, because the Saudi Arabia government allocates 1 percent of the total Muslim population for each country, or 210,000 participants, for this year.

As the government charges about Rp 33 million (US$3,350) each, this year's the total payment from pilgrims is about Rp 2.8 trillion. A huge amount for sure.

If we use the hitungan dagang (business calculation), like many Minangkabau traders in Tanah Abang Market say, the haj travel bureaus together with the Ministry of Religious Affairs will at least get one third as profit.

The pilgrims, of course, will spend more than Rp 33 million. One to three months before their departure, there are series of practices, or training conducted by the travel bureaus or related agencies.

Before and after performing the haj, the participants should donate more money for certain ceremonial and charitable activities.

And don't forget, they should also provide their relatives, neighbors and colleagues with gifts from Tanah Suci, the Holy Land. Overall, each participant may spend about Rp 50 million.

It's a very costly spiritual journey.

One of my close friends, who often became the guide for Indonesian pilgrims, revealed that he made much money every time the season came.

His father, who ran the haj business, could afford to build a nice house and his family enjoyed an easy life. And my friend told me that he was really motivated to learn Arabic and Islam at a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) because he wanted to work for his family business.

He said in the haj business he profited in two ways: Reward from God as well as the reward (wealth) from running the business.

The officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, especially those who work at the Ministry's directorate general for haj affairs, may also share my friend's view.
It is a lucrative business and the office is often regarded as lahan basah (a financially profitable division). Once you are there, you will prosper, the officials there often say.

And they are not alone, surely. The fact that one corrupt bureaucracy is correlated with other corrupt ones has been known for long time in relation to the haj management. We can clearly see how all the elements from beginning to end are monopolized.

Take a look at how the ministry manages accommodation. Almost everything is fraudulent: the arrival, the catering, the hotels, transportation, guides, and communication.

The government is very lucky, because many Indonesians are used to being patient and passive. And we can trace this "luck" back to two or three centuries ago.
As retold by Marcel Willox (1997), when it was recorded before the nineteenth century, Indonesians risked their lives and wealth and everything for the haj.

They will tend to remain passive even though they have to sacrifice themselves here or there, because they deeply believe that their death is never a waste. As their intention is declared before they leave, they are already indoctrinated for the eternal life.

But will this kind of business that exploits the belief and willingness of the people carry on like this? Are not there any alternatives to make it fairer and therefore less exploitative?

First of all, since the rules of the game are typically bureaucratic, and therefore strengthen the corrupt practices, the chance for change is slim. So, there should be an initiative from the lawmakers to review or amend the 2008 law on the haj management.

The management of the haj should be required to be more transparent and accountable, especially before the public.

There should be reliable and standardized procedures and operations that the public can trust. The law should ascertain that there is no more aji mumpung (taking advantage) or yang penting jalan (just go ahead).

Second, there should be independent institution(s) filled with independent people which are legally continuously supervising, assisting and auditing the management of the haj in all its aspects.

And it is the government itself, the President at best, that should establish it since it is under the executive's scope of work. The existence of this institution will enable the checks and balances process in the handling of the haj. Khairil Azhar , Jakarta The writer is a teacher at Lazuardi GIS, Jakarta.

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